It’s going to be a rumble in the jungle, baby.
It’s morning in America. And no, ghost of Reagan, this has nothing to do with supply side economics. After years on the fringes, the 2014 World Cup has carried the United States into the American cultural mainstream. The extremely American victory over Ghana last Monday caught the attention of casual fans. Armed with a rudimentary understanding of the offside rule and palpable sensations of patriotic fervor, they are now headed to “soccer bars” that they read about in newspaper trend pieces, ready to participate in the collective jingoism that is the #USMNT.
All of these forces expect one result today: an American victory. But despite the win over Ghana, the Yanks struggled during much of Monday’s match, unable to maintain possession against a gifted Ghanaian team who again showed their class in a stirring 2-2 draw with Germany yesterday. Against Ghana, Jurgen’s midfield diamond collapsed, and the United States resorted to bunker ball, defending Howard’s net like it was Little Round Top.
To defeat Portugal, the United States will need to again play with the grit and belief that helped them dispatch Ghana, and hopefully have more time on the ball, too. Without Jozy Alitdore, this job will be much more difficult. Expect Aron Johannsson to start alongside Captain Clint Dempsey at forward. Playing with a broken nose, Dempsey will be tasked with hold-up play while the elusive Icelandic-American seeks out seams in Portugal’s back line.
Defensively, countless tactical previews have attempted to address the Ronaldo question. His level of fitness will be determined on the pitch, but most signs indicate that he will play. Dangerous with and without the ball, expect the United States to pressure his side of the pitch, always ensuring Ronaldo remains, in American football parlance, in double-coverage.
Thankfully, the rest of Portugal’s squad is in flux. After their 4-0 capitulation to Germany, expect as many as five lineup changes, including replacements for Fábio Coentrão and Pepe. As Germany demonstrated, Portugal can be rattled and broken. Another moment of early magic from Clint Dempsey might be all that is needed to dismantle Portugal’s unstable emotional edifice. If the United States can prevent Portugal from regaining any lost confidence, the bearded guy in your office will probably be calling in sick tomorrow.
The final actor in this clash: Manaus. Read any English language soccer publication, and you’re bound to find completely exoticized descriptions of a city where over 1 million people live. Yes, it’s hot. Yes, it’s humid. Some pundits claim that these conditions favor a team like the United States used to battling tropical-climes on their campaigns around the CONCACAF hinterlands. If you believe that logic, the heat in Manaus will feel like a soft breeze rolling off the Pacific Ocean.
But I imagine Jurgen doesn’t care too much about the weather. This tournament, as I wrote last week, isn’t about World Cups past or the barometer reading at kickoff. It’s about the present.
If the United States can defend Howard’s goal as a unit and find a way to get a goal or two, their Brazilian vacation might just get a little longer.